Modern mines and mining processing industries, in the majority, are located in the same or similar places to where pre-colonial ones used to be. The modern copper mines in Phalaborwa and Musina in South Africa, the copperbelt of Zambia, the Ashante goldfields of Ghana, and the Globe and Phoenix gold mines in Zimbabwe are a few examples of new mines built on the same site as ancient mines. European prospectors, looking for places to mine, often followed the example left by indigenous miners and metal workers. And where indigenous miners were still able to strive; Europeans settlers took over by force.
Know-how into indigenous mining and metallurgy provides fascinating details about the techniques which miners used, as well as the associated beliefs and the significance of those beliefs in the success of mining expeditions and the working of ores – it is a story of glory, glory, glory!
The continents mining past forms an important aspect of our rich heritage, it also points to how African societies worked. That has the prospect of providing today’s generation with ways through which it can contrive solutions to its problems and how to best work its gifts. Mining and metallurgy promoted the development of economic integration between most of the world’s regions.
The earliest evidence of mining comes from Africa. Archaeological evidence shows that around 40 000 years ago people quarried and collected iron ores from the surface to use as pigments on the Bomvu Ridge in Swaziland. Around 80 000 years ago evidence shows use of iron oxide as a pigment on the Blombos Cave in South Africa and there is further evidence of the use of pigments dating far back than 120 000 years (in Rock Art, and many other creative ways; such as use on skin).
We used a wide variety of techniques to take out or extract the metal ores from the ground. These methods were largely influenced by how rich the surface material was (how much ore there was), the local geology (landscape and soil conditions) and what technology (such as tools) was available. These methods were highly economical when compared with modern ways of mining. Today it costs more to acquire the modern know-how and it’s uneconomical priced equipment to extract ores from the ground that at times the business is the selling of this modern ‘know-how’ and equipment maintenance than the actual extraction which then becomes expensive to the environment and its people.
The methods used to mine ores in pre-colonial times include surface collecting, open mining, and underground mining – all known forms of mining. Some of the examples of open mining include the Rhino ochre mine in Limpopo, South Africa. In some instances, when all the material from the surface had been collected, miners followed the path of the ore mineral into the ground. Thus, open mining as a technique was conceived. The would be cases, after having dug vertical shafts, where mineral veins lay horizontal and miners would have to follow the horizontal mineralisation, which were then mined out. This technique is known as underground mining. An example of underground mining, as practised by Africans, is the tin mine at Rooiberg in Limpopo, South Africa – there are many other examples throughout the sub-Saharan Africa.
When prospecting, miners needed to know about the Earth’s features and where certain ores were likely to be found. For example, typical gold-producing areas have gold belt rocks of greenstones, ironstones and schists, which produce distinct soil and vegetation types such as the tree species Msasa (brachystegia spiciforms) which is rare in gold belt landscapes. And, because of the knowledge of these things, people knew where to prospect. As a result of knowing where to prospect, Thabazimbi, the Hill of Iron, in South Africa afforded communities to prosper and develop settlements around it. The Hwedza Mountains in Zimbabwe afforded communities to settle around it as well. Banjeli in Togo which had a lot of high grade iron ore is another example for Bassari people.
All mining techniques used were an African ingenuity and never imported from other corners of the world; in fact, other parts of the world are the ones that have derived inspiration from this very continent. There is a long history of the extraction and surface collection of nature’s items, such as iron oxides, which where ground into powder used at times to decorate the body or walls as is evident from the impressive rock art across the continent. Archaeological information that was able to survive indicate that pre-colonial mining in Africa was an indigenous activity which did not use labour and techniques from other parts of the world.
Archaeological work at Phalaborwa shows that the pre-colonial extraction of copper ores began as early as 800 CE, and can possibly be earlier than this date (which is more likely), and continued into the late 19th century where it began to decline with the coming of settlers into that space accompanied by forced removals. The copper mine at Phalaborwa is one of the largest mines in the world. That mine continues to be worked to this very day, although not by its indigenous people.
In yesteryears there were large quantities of metal ores in nature such that many people were able to collect them from rich surface outcrops. Eventually, as surface outcrops of ore became depleted, open and underground methods of mining gradually developed.
About 18 000 tons of ore were mined by indigenous people at Rooiberg (Thabazimbi) in South Africa using the underground method, which would, in most cases, initially start off as open pit mining, but because of underground deposits that stretched horizontally the excavation would follow these paths and in the process develop underground mining methods. Lolwe Hill at Phalaborwa in South Africa is another example of a well worked underground copper mine by indigenous people. The diggings on Lolwe Hill followed the ore veins with great accuracy and created very small underground shafts.
One important aspect to record is that mining mostly happened in certain seasons so that workers could be available for agricultural tasks in the other seasons, which happened to coincide with those seasons that needed much work (well, not so much a coincidence but a deep understanding of how nature is balanced).
In order to prevent collapses miners sorted the ore underground and used the debris as a form of backfill which helped to reinforce the structure of the mine. Mines were generally abandoned when they reached the water table as well as when they reached the sulphide zones. Sulphur has poisonous effects and people, then, never wished to disturb or contaminate underground water. At the times the mines would be worked in the winter season when the water table was very low.
Huge pits dug into the ground, towering dumps and air-polluting processing plants are features of the modern mining industries. Squatter camps and other squalor living conditions, around these industries, are a recent development as well (these “modern” places of residence can be likened to cheap labour reservoirs).
Generally, people in Africa have always come up with creative solutions when faced with opportunities or problems. Technology is one of these solutions to a series of economic, political, social and cultural problems. From their beginnings, pre-colonial mining and metallurgy have left significant clues of their existence behind. For example, mine shafts which are no longer used, remnants or bits and pieces of furnaces, slag, crucibles and even broken blow pipes – tools used by metallurgists – have been found, together with finished products.
When indigenous mining and metallurgy managed to keep going and gave ‘modern’ industries stiff competition. The colonial governments responded by banning these industries. These very governments introduced laws on property. The laws introduced turned mines, which used to be owned by the community, into private property, owned by European individuals and companies – a crime that continues to be perverted to this very day. Indigenous miners and smelters had no choice other than to stop smelting, as they had no access to essential resources such as ore; only a few are continuing with the practice. Those indigenous people are us all, spanning the entire continent to members in the diaspora. There is an emergence of groups of people who are mining at a small scale, and there definitely needs to be more done to have the original people of this continent back in the field of mining, and metallurgy, using their own tried and tested methods with a modern touch.
In as much as metals and minerals were central to the day-to-day functioning of African societies, one of their most significant influences was in the emergence of Africa’s prominent states and the development of early forms of globalisation.
Johannesburg, in South Africa, called the ‘City of Gold’, has grown around mines, Kitwe in Zambia has grown around mines, Mhangura in Zimbabwe has grown around mines, etc – The whole of sub-Saharan Africa is rich with similar examples. Mining areas as economic hubs is not a recent development but dates back to the days of our forebears.
By Themba Ka Mhlanga
Prof Shadreck Chirikure is acknowledged, special acknowledgments to my dear friends Dr Musa Manzi.